10 Inexpensive and Creative Ways to Sharpen Your Cooking Skills

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How are those New Year’s Resolutions going? Some people say that they want to stop eating out so much, then realize that they need to sharpen their cooking skills. The more you cook, the better you get. Here are some creative and inexpensive ways to learn:

1. Host A Cooking Party:

Each One, Teach One- Everyone has cooking strengths. Whether you are more of a cook or a baker, everyone has a signature dish. Use the knowledge from your friends and family by asking a friend/family member to show you and a small group how to make a dish. The different members in each group can rotate “cooking classes”. Maybe you have a friend that knows how to make Indian Food. Have them to teach everyone how to make an Indian dish. The next month, someone else can show off their specialty. There is a great wealth of knowledge in your friendship circles. Use it!

You could also ask a chef at one of your favorite restaurants to teach you and a group of friends how to cook at your house. If you invite 10-15 people and everyone pays about $30, that could cover the cost of the chef’s time and the food ingredients.  Ask the chef to make the class as interactive as possible. This is a great way to get tips on how to make delicious, restaurant quality food.

2. Community Colleges:

Check your local community college for cooking classes. They are often a great value, and you get instruction from people that are trained to cook. In the metro Chicago area (suburbs), College of DuPage offers cooking classes. Downtown, the Chicago Cultural Center also offers cooking classes that are quite affordable, starting at $30 a class (visit www.chicagoworldkitchen.org).

3. Grocery Stores:

Upscale grocery stores often offer cooking classes.  Check your local Whole Foods, Wegmans and Publix stores to see if they offer classes.  Local gourmet stores are also great places to check.

4. Online:

Get cooking tips from the comfort of your own home – there’s no need to go anywhere. Set up your laptop or iPad to watch cooking podcasts and YouTube channels.

  • Cooking-specific podcasts are a great way to learn how to cook. Many of them have a nominal cost, and some of them are free.
    • Subscribe to Podcasts like Start Cooking, which covers cooking basics (you would be surprised at what you don’t know) http://startcooking.com/,
  •  Visit the video section at allrecipes.com for quick, instructional videos on everything from Shortcut Recipes to how to make French Toast.
  • YouTube: Search the videos for the dish that you’ve been wanting to learn how to make. I would suggest that you watch a few videos, and follow the advice of an expert source. I learned how to make sweet plantains by watching YouTube videos, and they were delicious. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCHIeRYzKII

5. Attend Local Festivals

Local festivals often have cooking demonstrations. For example, in Chicago, The Taste of Chicago, Printer’s Row Lit Fest and the Flower and Garden Show all have cooking demonstrations, many times with local celebrity chefs.

6. Specialty Cookware Retail Stores:

Retail stores like Sur La Table and Williams Sonoma offer cooking classes in select locations.  Some classes are offered for free, while others require a fee.  Check their websites for details:



Sur La Table – Currently offering a knife skills class:


7. Join a cooking meetup group

Meetup.com is a great website to meet people w/similar interests. Visit the website and search your city for cooking groups.

8. Online Daily Deals:

Daily deal websites like Groupon, YouSwoop and Living Social often offer deals on cooking classes. Scoop them up when you see them.

9. Get a Part-Time Job:

Want to learn how to professionally bake and decorate pastries? Get a part-time job at a bakery. They might be willing to train you. The pay might not be amazing, but it’s an affordable option to learn professional level skills vs. going to a culinary school.

10. Volunteer:

Whether you are volunteering at a soup kitchen, making meals at the Ronald McDonald House, or teaching kids about healthy eating with Common Threads, food-based volunteer organizations are also a great way to learn some cooking skills. As simple as many of the dishes may seem, I’ve always learned at least one cooking tip during my volunteer experiences. It’s great to be able to serve the community and learn all at the same time.

How to Make Homemade Apple-Cinnamon Infused Vodka

I was inspired to create some homemade Christmas presents this year, and decided to make infused vodkas as a gift. I purchased the bottles from the Container Store (no more than $5 each), and used a mid-range vodka (Svedka) which is recommended when infusing – no need to spurge on the Belvedere when adding infused flavor. Once the vodka is finished infusing, remove the fruit, strain, and pour the vodka into the bottle w/a funnel. Decorate the bottle and wrap as a gift!

Check out my video for a demonstration:

Homemade Apple-Cinnamon Infused Vodka

Apple-Cinnamon Infused Vodka Recipe:
– 1/2 liter of vodka
– 3 apples
– 2 cinnamon sticks

I originally was planning on infusing it for 5 days, but it ended up turning into 3 weeks. The vodka was absolutely amazing and full of apple-cinnamon flavor. It was dangerous because you could literally drink it on the rocks. For an apple-cinnamon flavor, I would suggest mixing it with Sprite, Ginger Ale, or Apple Cider (hot or cold). I gave the vodka to my friend Jenny as a hostess gift for her holiday party, and I think she enjoyed it.
At this present moment, I’m infusing a Blueberry-Vanilla vodka as a gift for a party that I’m going to in 2 weeks. Vanilla doesn’t require as much time to infuse, so I removed the vanilla bean after 3 days, and I’ll let the blueberries continue to “marinate”.

Blueberry-Vanilla Infused Vodka Recipe:
– 2 cups of blueberries, sliced
– 1 vanilla bean, sliced down the middle
– 1 liter of vodka

– Shake the infused mixture from time-to-time to accelerate the infusing process
– Taste the infused mixture along the way to ensure that it does not taste too strong with the infusing agent. If it does taste too strong, add more vodka to tone down the flavor.

– If you don’t have the time to infuse, you can also present the vodka and the fruit in a bottle, and tell the recipient to open after a certain amount of time.

If you like cocktails, or if you have a friend that does, this is a great gift that can be used year-round.


Just Ask…

Today, I was feeling like I wanted a burger and fries, but I didn’t want to eat a huge order. You know, most of these restaurants give you huge portion sizes, and I didn’t want to end up eating more than I needed to. (Especially since I had a burger, fries and chocolate shake at Portillo’s over the weekend – I’m surprised I’m not 500 lbs.).

Anyway, I called a local burger restaurant (Poag Mahone’s) to place a carry-out order, and asked if I could get 2 sliders instead of 4… and she said yes. Nice! Normally they don’t do this, she said, but they weren’t busy, so they went ahead and made it. The best part was that my bill was cut in half too! $6 instead of $12. That’s what I’m talking about! So glad I asked.

I normally ask to reduce the size of my order at brunch – i.e. getting 2 pancakes instead of 4, but I usually don’t do this for lunch and dinner. The moral of the story is to just ask at any place you eat – you never know…they might accommodate, which can benefit your waistline and your pocket book.

Do you REALLY know how to tip when using a Groupon?

So, I was out to dinner with a friend and we were using a Groupon. At the end of dinner, the question came up about how to properly tip.

One thought was that you tip on the value of the Groupon plus any extra money that you spend – so if the Groupon deal is $25 for $50 worth of food,  tip on the $25 + any extra food that was purchased.

I always thought that you tip on the TOTAL value of the food, i.e. tip on the $50 + any extra food. After a brief discussion, I decided to read the fine print of my Groupon, which said to tip on the value of the Groupon. This was not as specific as I would have liked, so I called Groupon to clear this up.

The Answer: (Ding, Ding, Ding!!)

The very nice customer service rep at Groupon said that you should tip on the TOTAL value of the Groupon + any extra food you buy. So, in this case, you would tip on the $50 + any extra food that was purchased over the value of the Groupon.

I wonder how much confusion is out there about this. This is probably why some restaurants aren’t happy to see people w/Groupons and other daily deals…What do you think?


Recipe Randomness

Below are a couple of random recipes that I’m inspired to make:

Severed Finger Cookies:

Halloween is such a fun holiday. I saw these cookies in the Rachael Ray magazine and knew that I had to make them. I’ve showed them to a few people who are a little grossed out, but they are just sugar cookies in the shape of fingers with a little raspberry jam on the ends. I’ll be making these for a Halloween party this weekend, and let you all know how they turned out.

Below is the link to the recipe:


Sweet Potato Waffles

Another recipe that I’m inspired to make are these Sweet Potato Waffles from Bon Appetit magazine. They are showing this recipe with fried chicken, but I think that it would taste even better with jerk chicken and some maple syrup. Below is the link to the recipe if you are inclined to try it:



Follow your taste buds!!

Foodie Finds in London

London has the reputation for having bland and uninspired food, but If you look in the right places, there are some tasty finds worthy of the foodie taste buds.

Below were some of my favorites from my recent trip:

Wagamama – Before my trip, a few of my friends mentioned that I should visit a place called Wagamama – a very prevalent Thai food restaurant in London. It’s everywhere, and has great food. I had a delicious curry chicken dish with coconut rice. They also have several noodle dishes. The one that I had wasn’t my favorite (a little dry), but the rice dish was superb. I also had a couple of dumplings, – very tasty, along with some peach iced tea. A nice London welcome lunch. Check!

Harrod’s Food Halls– Another recommendation that I received was to visit the Harrod’s food halls. Harrod’s is a famous and fancy department store known for high-end clothing and their food halls. ( I remember an episode of Whitney and Bobby’s reality show where Whitney Houston and her daughter were shopping in the store…but I digress…) I didn’t know what to expect, but it was simply foodie paradise. The food halls are split up into rooms that specialize in certain kinds of gourmet food, and you can either buy the food to-go (or as they say in London “take-away”) or you can eat it there. I enjoyed the tea and candy room, which had so many kinds of tea that it would make your head spin, and hundreds of different chocolate delights. I purchased some of the tea in the tea room, which had loose tea, tea bags, in all kinds of flavors, and all of the tea accessories you would want. There was a room specializing in meats and seafood, which included a caviar bar. There was also a section dedicated to jams and jellies, and even a specialty salt section. They had everything, along with glittery cupcakes.

Afternoon Tea at the Capitol Hotel– Time Out London mentioned the Capitol Hotel as an excellent option for afternoon tea. Turns out that it was rated as the best value for your money for afternoon tea. Cost was 20 pounds , which included finger sandwiches (cucumber, salmon and egg), a wide selection of teas, along with a 3-tier tower of pastries and confections. The room was beautifully decorated to the point where I made mental notes for my future home. Great service. The food was good, and I found the scones to be more like a buttery, fluffy southern-style biscuit than the dry scones that we typically tend to eat in the states. I told my friend Caroline “This isn’t a scone, this is a biscuit!” They use clotted cream (much like butter) on the scones along with jam. Tasty. A must-do for a London trip.

Food Market – I visited the Borough food market on a Saturday, which was one of my favorite parts of the trip. There were food vendors selling meat and fruit for the locals to take home (much like a farmer’s market), and there was ready-to eat food that you could eat for breakfast or lunch. I had a Caribbean curry chicken dish, which was absolutely delicious. They gave big portions, and I could have easily split the dish and still been satisfied. I tried goat milk ice cream for the first time, which is supposed to be good for those that lactose intolerant. I had a strawberry flavor, and could taste the “goat” aftertaste – like goat cheese. Not bad, but I wouldn’t be rushing out to eat it. A good alternative for those that are lactose intolerant…


The Baltic – One of my co-workers recommended that I visit the Baltic restaurant for a trendy, gourmet dinner. The food was mainly eastern-European and they had a large selection of infused vodkas. I tried one of the honey-infused vodkas, which was served in a shot glass (for sipping, not chugging). It was served warm, and had a nice, sweet aftertaste. They had several other flavors that they made in-house as well. A great place for drinks. The food was good. I had a beet salad with a very mild and smooth goat cheese, and a chicken dish, which was buttery and flavorful. The restaurant is just a couple of blocks from the Young Vic Theater (where I saw a fabulous musical), so they have some pre-fixe menus before and after the shows (early dinner or a late dinner). I’d recommend the Baltic for a nice dinner on the town.

Pret A Manger – Chicago recently opened this store in the city – straight from London. This is a good store for a quick sandwich, or soup, and they also had breakfast. I noticed that they were advertising porridge, which I did not get the chance to eat. The selections were much different than what you would see in the states. For example, they had cold sandwiches w/shrimp inside. Prawns and shrimp seemed to be a popular item in London, as I noticed prawn cocktail potato chips in the grocery stores, etc. Very interesting.

EAT – I had my first meat pie with mashed potatoes and gravy at EAT. It was a lot like a chicken pot pie – best way I can describe it. Very comforting and delicious. Highly recommended.

If you look for good food in London, you will find it. It does exist. If you find yourself heading to London, these places are good options. Bon Appetit!

Cupcake Wars Party

I participated in a “cupcake wars” cupcake cookoff party,

and won best overall cupcake for my “Peek-a-boo Strawberry Cupcakes” – I named it peek-a-boo because there is a whole fresh strawberry right in the center, and it also had a delicious homemade vanilla-lime buttercream frosting.

Below is the link to the recipe, which I found on another foodie blog after searching for “unique cupcakes”:


I love the idea of putting fresh fruit inside of a cupcake, or having a “surprise” inside of a cupcake in general.

Below is another “surprise” cupcake recipe that I would like to try – if you are inspired to make it before I do, let me know how it turns out:

  • Oreo cupcakes – has a whole oreo cookie on the bottom of the cupcake!


A cupcake cook off party is an excellent way to try a new recipes.

Below are a couple of my other cupcake favorites from the party:

Created by Syreeta Harris
14 "Karat" Carrot cupcakes. Great cupcake for an engagement party or wedding shower. Rings can be purchased at Michael's - Thanks to Syreeta Harris for the idea
Rubber Duckie Cupcakes – Great for baby showers. Just purchase the ducks from Michael’s. Thanks to Ana Serafin











Introducing Taste Bud Diaries!

My name is Erica and food is my passion. I love to eat it, cook it, and talk about it. I’m starting this blog to share, inform, and inspire in all things food.

I’ll share recipe ideas, restaurant recommendations, and even some of my favorite foods from the grocery store. I’ll also provide entertaining ideas and tips, and highlights from my adventurous travels (food related, of course).

My hope is that you will be inspired after reading my blogs… inspired to cook something for someone else, have a party, try a new recipe, or visit a restaurant that you’ve never heard of. Overall, I just want to help you to celebrate life through great-tasting food. Just follow your taste buds.